Silence is more talked about than practised these days. The irony of speaking endless words about silence was not lost on the late Jean Leclerq who also had some good things to say about the thousands of miles he had travelled to speak about stability. I think he might have had some trenchant observations to make about today’s obsession with being perpetually connected, as though the smartphone were a fifth limb linking us to a world that never sleeps, never goes offline.
The truth is, most of us are keener on silence in the abstract than in reality. We understand silence to be somehow an escape from the hurly-burly of life as we know it, so we devise various strategies to free ourselves from the world of noise in which we pass most of our days. Spending a lot of time on Social Media? Let’s have a digital fast! Always on our smartphone? Let’s switch everything off and enjoy some primeval silence! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. People are still people and will claim our attention whether we are online or not; our smartphone may be off but there’s always something going on in the background, from traffic noise to the squeaks, squawks and screams of wildlife in the countryside. We are approaching silence from the wrong end, so to say, and possibly for the wrong reasons.
Many people enjoy a brief interlude of silence and find it refreshing, but if it goes on too long or is too complete, it makes them uneasy. A soundproof room, for example, can be disorientating. A couple of weeks of silence in a monastery has been known to drive people to midnight flits — anything to get away from this frightening absence of the everyday and familiar. If physical silence can be disconcerting, interior silence can be devastating. Those who try to cultivate interior silence will tell you that, beautiful though it is, it strips us of everything we rely on to protect ourselves. Silence lets us see ourselves as we are, and most of us are not very keen on that.
So, what are we doing when we declare a digital fast or switch off our mobiles for a day, a week, or more? Are we doing anything more than trying to assure ourselves we are not addicted? We are not actually risking an exposure to silence, are we? Anyone who seriously tries to pray will tell you that although external silence is helpful, it is not necessary. It is the noise we carry within that creates all the problems. Rather than switching off or disconnecting, what we need to do is to cultivate an attitude of detachment from our online world. We can be silent in the midst of digital noise, but it takes discipline and a clear sense of purpose. It is not how much we are online but how we are online and why that counts. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments reflecting on that.